Hip-Hop, Comedy, and the Great Kanye West Debate

by Chris Jackson

I've had a number of pleasantly outraged exchanges with this blog's host on the subject of Kanye West. I'm a fan. Ta-Nehisi, you may have surmised, not so much. As I was about to throw myself into a several thousand word defense of Yeezy's latest album, Kanye did me the disservice of releasing a new song, which made me realize that I was about to stick my jackrabbit paws around (apologies to Mitt Romney) the tar baby of all tar babies: defending every new statement from the man even the President took time out of his busy schedule to call a jackass. But then I scrolled down from T's last post on the subject and was pleased to see that many of his commentariat had already handily dismantled his anti-Yeezy arguments. Nice work commentariat!  So instead, I'll make this post about how we listen to rap, especially in light of two new books on the subject: Jay-Z's Decoded, and Yale University Press's Anthology of Rap.    

I was the editor of Decoded, and one of Jay-Z's main ambitions for the book from the beginning is that it give both fans and haters a primer on how to listen to rap, and why it's always more complicated than you think it is. Rap can be free wordplay or linear narrative. Sometimes a rapper uses words as rhythmic devices, as percussion, with little concern about literal meaning. Rap can be polemic or stand-up comedy. It's autobiography, fantasy, confession, satire, lecture, dream. The voice of the rapper can be first-, second-, or third-person, comic or hyperbolic or earnest. Even then it's complicated: Jay-Z's voice, even in earnest first person, is not necessarily Shawn Carter's voice, but then again sometimes it is.

This slippery point-of-view is one of the aspects of rap that gives it its depth--and by depth, I mean its sense of enchantment and obscurity, the dimension that can't be easily measured--which is one of the keys to its power. It's one of the things, Jay argued in the book, that justifies rap as a poetic form (whether rap ever needs to be justified as anything other than rap is another argument, which Kelefa Sanneh, among others, addressed in his review of the book in The New Yorker).  

So is Kanye West a misogynist? I don't think I can answer that question. I have to say my meter might be broken: I was sick yesterday and after watching an immensely satisfying rerun of America's Top Model, I realized the remote was across the room and but I couldn't generate the strength to get up.  So I ended up watching one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen: a show called The Bad Girls Club (or something like that, I'm still sick, too sick to Google), where the word "bitch" figured into every single sentence.  Here's how the show worked:  several young women moved into a mansion, got epically trashed, and brawled with each other in their swimsuits for an hour.  This was on Oxygen!  Didn't Oprah start Oxygen? Wasn't it supposed to be a network for women?  What the hell?  Is there a goal to this show, like are they trying to win something?  It was bizarre. 

This was followed by an airing of the Original Queens of Comedy, in which every punchline was bleeped pretty much all the way through; it was like watching three wild comediennes screeching koans at the audience (or reading strips of Garfield Minus Garfield).  The word "bitch" was usually the only unbleeped word in every punchline.  So after every joke's elaborate, energetic set up, the comedian would end by wildly gesticulating to the sound of beeeeep-bitch!-beeeeeeeep and the audience would go wild.  By the time I got off the couch, I felt like I never wanted to hear the word "bitch" again, ever, even in reference to a dog or a sea cucumber

But that's not what I'm here to say.  My point, really, is that on the basis of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy alone, it's very hard (but not impossible) to make a moral judgement about Kanye West.  It's a concept album--a narrative--which immediately complicates the question  Then there's the style of narration:  stream-of-consciousness.  As I noted to T, Kanye is like Montaigne, who said of himself that he doesn't record being, but passing. That is, Kanye's raps aren't about a static, fixed identity as much as they are about the passing flow of thoughts through our consciousness, thoughts that are wild and contradictory and hard to justify in the light of day. They pulse with love and seconds later hate. Our thoughts are all over the place: they surge with unrealistic ego and then punish us with unrealistic doubt. Ye's line, "Have you ever had sex with a Pharoah/Iiii put the pussy in a sarcophagus" is to me a classic example of this twist: one moment of ego-tripping delusion of grandeur (I'm a Pharaoh!), followed by the stuttered, self-deflating ad absurdum retraction, including an anatomically dada image  (how, exactly, does one put a pussy in a sarcophagus?). 

His song "Blame Game" ends with a Chris Rock skit that some see as misogynistic (T finds it an overexplanation).  But it's key: a cuckold's self-lacerating fantasy of his own humiliation, reducing the woman who leaves him and the man she leaves him for to vicious caricatures. Its point is about the narrator: this is his final, completely committed fantasy of his own abasement, borne from his own hurt and pathetic self-pity. Some might also find it funny. To me, the album's high point is Pusha T's interlude on "Runaway," which is also, to me, the album's clearest indication of its own narrative technique: the song has two voices, one, rapped by Kanye, is private, if not interior, riven with doubt, self-loathing, and confusion; the other, rapped by Pusha T, offers the public pimp face to make the same point ("you can leave if you can't accept the basics") in resolute and cold-blooded (and, in the context of song, transparently dishonest, defensive) language. The combination completely subverts the rapper-as-cold-blooded-pimp mythology. And, as narrative, it's heartbreaking in its way.   

Kanye's thing with white women is, understandably, troubling for a number of reasons.  Even the defense that he's just offering a mirror to America's historical obsession with the value of white women doesn't feel like sufficient justification (dream hampton, who also worked on Jay's book, tweeted, "I'm in solidarity with self-loving whitegirls around this. We shld hold hands and say Kanye, whitegirls are not a Versace couch..."). But there's another possibility: that he's joking.  I know, "it's just a joke," is the lamest justification for misogyny, racism, etc. etc.--especially since the "jokes" (e.g. a Hillary Clinton nutcracker; an Obama watermelon patch) tend to be insults, most of all, to the idea of humor. But I'm not saying that it's just a joke. In his awesome anthology of black humor, Hokum, Paul Beatty recounts the opening scene of Richard Pryor's short-lived NBC television show.  Pryor is wandering around the NBC studios, battling writer's block.  And, well, here's Beatty: 
Forty minutes into the show, the idea-bereft host is accosted by his head writer, a....black nationalist, and his surly band of script-doctoring, afro-pick-wielding revolutionaries.  The brothers have solved Pryor's writer's block.  They have a script, a script that glorifies black unity and brings the message to the people.  Concerned the teleplay sounds a bit heavy-handed, Pryor asks if there's anything funny in it.  Taken aback by his incredulity, one of the writers responds.  "Funny?  I'm talking about really funny.  Dig on this here--in one of the sketches you slap this white broad upside her head and knock her to the floor!  Ain't that funny, man?"
That's funny?" Pryor asks.
"I could kick her a little, too."
No, kicking this white woman when she's down isn't funny, but talking about it being funny is.

Okay, maybe even that's not funny to you. But Beatty later makes the point that in the tradition of black humor--of humor, period--things get ugly sometimes, vicious even, and that means sometimes even the white ladies get it.  Kanye ends the album with Gil Scott-Heron's monologue "Who Will Survive in America," which has its own crazy vagina-related metaphor about America--also meant to be absurd and comic, but drawing from America's own mythology. I'm not really willing to totally get behind this interpretation as a justification--his obsessiveness with the image makes me a little queasy--but at the least I think it's hard to analyze Kanye's lyrics outside of the understanding that he's fundamentally a comic, a sometimes viciously comic, rapper ... and an artist (think about the use of the American mythology of sex and skin color in the work of say, Kara Walker; it's a potent idea, still, and not one that should be off limits or restricted to "acceptable" presentations), and operating out of a tradition of which he's conscious (as indicated by the inclusion of Gil Scott-Heron and Chris Rock).   And, of course, there's probably no great comedian in American history whose act I would play at a dinner party without expectation of giving some guest offense. I've tried it before--and seriously, don't do it, no matter how much you love Live on the Sunset Strip

I think the most difficult, and most intriguing, aspect of Kanye as a rapper is that you never know whether he's celebrating or satirizing an idea, or doing both at the same time. In the New York Review of Books review of The Anthology of Rap (this month's issue, subscription only), there's a great line about the nature of sophisticated contemporary rap when it comes to its take on business and wealth, which I think also describes what makes Kanye a conundrum--but also makes dismissing him for his materialism, racism, sexism, nihilism, etc. very difficult, for me at least: 

Even as rap undermines its whole demented code of money, cars, ho's, and hustlers, it markets it, markets itself. It makes rap in some ways the savviest and wittiest critique of the business of art ever conducted from inside of artworks, but the critique doesn't undermine the business: it is the business. 

All of which is to say (and this much longer than I intended so, apologies, and thanks to those of you who made it to the end) that Kanye West may or may not be a racist and a misogynist, but before making that claim he deserves a fairer hearing than a surface reading of his lyrics. We all know that rap is narrative, with unreliable narrators, and that the point-of-view in any narrative is not necessarily the point of view of the writer, but then we occasionally choose to forget this; in those moments we make judgments on rap songs without making the effort to first understand them on the terms of the form. 

It was wrong when C. Delores Tucker did it, it was wrong when my stepfather did it when I was 13, and it's wrong now.  I think Kanye is weird and sometimes terrible and sometimes brilliant and sometimes brilliant in terrible ways and vice versa. I think he's often wildly inappropriate and offensive--but I think if I was to come down one way or the other, I 'd say he's more of a provocateur--and a crafter of ambiguous narratives--than an evangelist of hate speech. But I'm open to the conversation. It's a credit to hip-hop, as opposed to most forms of American pop culture (e.g. the Oxygen network's Tuesday-night slate), that it has almost from the beginning been having this conversation, thanks to writers like dream, Joan Morgan, Tricia Rose, and our own Ta-Nehisi Coates.

One of the sad things about the decline of hip-hop related media is that it's harder to find a serious conversation by informed parties about hip-hop, in general--I think it's those informed conversations that have shifted and deepened the way we think about rap, how we listen to it, what we notice, which is what creates a space for music that goes deeper, takes risks, becomes richer and more ambiguous, more artful. I would argue that Kanye's album falls into that category, even if it stumbles along the way.  The absence of the conversation--on a popular level, outside of academia -- has been catastrophic for the form.  One of the gratifying things about the popularity of Jay-Z's book is that it brought some of these debates to kids who weren't even aware they were happening (and have been ongoing for two decades).  

But I think that pulling random lyrics and treating these pieces of imaginative art like statements of absolute belief is not the way to have the conversation: it's like shooting sea cucumbers in a barrel.